On October 12th, 1492, at about 2:00 in the morning, a man named Rodrigo de Triana, shouted from his ship the words “¡Tierra! ¡Tierra!” That moment marked one of the pivotal events in history. Europeans had returned to the Americas for the first time since the age of the Vikings, but this time with lasting consequences. This was an epic feat that would begin a new epoch for the entire world.
The man behind this accomplishment was a 41-year-old Genoese mariner named Christopher Columbus—one of the most critical figures in all of history.
At a young age Columbus had opportunities to take to the sea and travel widely. He was a devoted student of cartography, geography, history, and astronomy. Few scholars or mariners at the time believed the world was flat as is commonly believed today. The real question being asked at the time was how far away the lands of the Orient were if one took a westerly route. Columbus believed Asia was just over the western horizon. He was daring enough to find out for sure. He spent almost 15 years pitching his audacious plan to open a westward trade route to the far east. At last, he finally found a supporter in the Spanish crown. After expelling the Moors from Spain, Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand II were now able to focus on voyages of discovery to expand their empire and decided to sponsor Columbus’ expedition.
The goal of his voyage was to discover a new westward trading route to the far east, establish trading relations with China, India and Japan and to lay the groundwork for the introduction of Christianity to the region.
To his dying day Columbus maintained that the lands he visited on a total of four different voyages across the Atlantic were Asia. As we all know, of course, he actually rediscovered for the Europeans the continents of North and South America. On his four voyages he visited various islands of the West Indies in the Caribbean as well as mainland North and South America by landing in what is known today as Central America and Venezuela. For Renaissance Europe, he discovered a “New World” which eventually led to a mass migration of European settlers to the numerous colonies of the Americas that would eventually be established. The world would be altered forever.
The American people have long taken inspiration from Columbus’ accomplishments. His daring spirit, ingenuity, and perseverance would eventually lead to the founding of the United States in the Western Hemisphere which he put on the map. The capital of this nation is named after him and the date of his discovery of the New World is a national holiday.
Catholics too, have always taken inspiration from Columbus. In his 1892 encyclical Quarto Abeunte saeculo written in commemoration of the four hundredth anniversary of the discovery of the Americas, Pope Leo XIII called Columbus’ exploits “the highest and grandest which any age has ever seen accomplished by man.” The Pope was eager to emphasize in the same encyclical that since Columbus’ “Catholic faith was the strongest motive for the inception and prosecution” of his grand enterprise, “the whole human race owes not a little to the Church.”
In this age of historical revisionism, in which the whole history of Western exploration has been reduced to nothing but a tale of exploitation, imperialism, and “white supremacy”, can we still claim with pride as Pope Leo XIII did that “Columbus is ours?”
Robert Royal maintains that we can. He is the founder and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. and is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing. His book Columbus and the Crisis of the West, which is a revised and expanded edition of his 1992 work, 1492 and All That: Political Manipulations of History, has just been published by Sophia Institute Press. It provides a measured assessment of the complexities of this topic and cuts through the sweeping and most popular indictments of Columbus and his legacy.
This past year has brought the surreal sight of mobs taking over American streets. The ire of many of these riots were directed towards monuments dedicated to celebrating Columbus’ legacy. Several statues in his honor were toppled, showing that we need a measured and learned perspective more than ever. Robert Royal recently discussed Columbus and his book with CWR.
CWR: Should Christopher Columbus be considered a saint?
Robert Royal: No, he was a flawed man, as we all are—even saints. But there were many aspects of his faith that bring him quite close to a certain kind of sanctity. For instance, God played a large role in his conception of his mission and—despite the trouble he sometimes found himself in on land in the Caribbean—his Catholicism also guided his behavior, imperfect as that was.
There was a time when his voyages were described in a simple formula: “God, Gold, and Glory.” He certainly did seek profit, because exploration in the fifteenth century also entailed trying to establish global trade routes. And he wanted the glory that would accrue to the man who first crossed the Atlantic—and was able to return. (Several had sailed West and were never heard from again.) But many people today neglect “God” in that old phrase. Since we live in a materialist and commercial age, we assume Columbus wasn’t really serious about the place of God in his efforts.
But we have plenty of documentation about how much he consulted prophetic texts and religious writers as the idea of the Atlantic crossing was being formulated in his mind. In this, he was part of a late medieval Franciscan tradition that predicted a new age of the Holy Spirit. (Columbus was quite close with the Franciscans in Spain and seems to have dressed as a lay Franciscan towards the end of his life.) That movement posited that the Gospel would have to be preached to all nations before Christ could return to Earth in his Second Coming. In a famous letter that he wrote to Ferdinand and Isabella, he describes how he became convinced that the voyage was not merely possible but his own special vocation:
During this time, I have searched out and studied all kinds of texts: geographies, histories, chronologies, philosophies, and other subjects. With a hand that could be felt, the Lord opened my mind to the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies, and he opened my will to desire to accomplish this project. This was the fire that burned within me when I came to visit Your Highnesses.
For those still skeptical about the sincerity and importance of the Faith to Columbus, I like to point out that he left money in his will for the effort to free the Holy Land, Jerusalem in particular, from Muslim domination so that Christians could visit the holy sites again. That may sound too much like a Crusade to some today but, to put it somewhat vulgarly, he put his money where his mouth was, contributing to a cause that would be carried out after he was dead.
CWR: Should Christopher Columbus be considered a monster?
Robert Royal: Columbus may have been idealized by various groups in the past—interestingly as a proto-Protestant and entrepreneur by American Protestants in the nineteenth century, followed by the wave of Catholic immigrants—Irish, Italian, Slavic,—who took him as a kind of American patron saint. But he has been wildly demonized for decades now owing to the influence of radical, Marxist-leaning historians in American schools and universities. You often hear grade-school students say that he was a “genocidal maniac.” No serious historian would say that Columbus perpetrated genocide or even intended to. Though he enslaved some natives—Spanish law, in theory, only allowed that when men were captured during war or were perpetrating gross violations of the natural law—the slave trade was never of serious interest to him. And to connect him with the later slave trade—particularly the Middle Passage of Africans brought to the New World —is historically wrong.
He wasn’t a good governor on land, though he was a great navigator and explorer. He got into trouble because he was alternatively too lenient or too harsh—towards both indigenous and Spaniards. Fr. Bartolome de las Casas, the great Dominican “defender of the Indians” talks about Columbus’ sweetness of character and good intentions, even as he allows that Columbus didn’t always realize how he should have handled problems. I find it telling and somewhat comic to read one of Columbus’ letters back to the Spanish monarch in which he complains about the ne’er-do-wells coming from Spain, asking the king and queen to be careful who they allow to come over, and by the way could they send 60 or so missionaries to help convert the Spaniards to Christianity?
CWR: What is the legacy of Christopher Columbus? Should this legacy continue to be celebrated with a national holiday and historic monuments?
Robert Royal: It’s telling to me that many jurisdictions this year are replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day without knowing much of anything about the one or the other. I have no quarrel about celebrating certain indigenous peoples and their cultures—but not all by any means—any more than I would honor every “white” or “European” figure from the past.
Long before Columbus, indigenous peoples practiced slavery, human sacrifice, torture, racism, sexism, imperialism, colonialism, and much more that we would object to today alongside their great achievements. And those who believe that the indigenous had escaped Original Sin and were innocents living in perfect harmony with God, nature, and one another, have set themselves up for deep disillusion when they actually look into the record.
But even more than all that, why is it necessary to replace Columbus Day? It would be quite easy to pick another day to honor the contributions of other, previously marginalized groups and individuals—if you mean it when you say you want to be more “inclusive.” How is it more “inclusive” to exclude a central episode in our history like the voyages of Columbus? And if we refuse to celebrate the first moment that the European and Christian tradition came to these shores, I think we’re in peril of a kind of cultural suicide, demanding that figures of the past be perfect—in way we consider perfect—before we’ll allow that we should honor or feel gratitude towards them.
Columbus is bearing a lot of later peoples’ sins just now. People who know nothing about him stomp on his statues and, symbolically, charge him with everything bad that happened after him in the Americas. I often ask: if you’re going to overgeneralize, exaggerate, and blame him for all that, are you also going to give him some credit for all the obviously good things that have happened on these shores over the past 500 years? And show some gratitude for the truth that without him, none of us would be here?
My dear friend the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago used to talk about how much of an impression it made on him when the first pictures from space came back showing the green and blue ball of the earth floating in space—showing that we all live in one world. That’s true enough. But it’s also the case that the sense that all human beings live in one world began in 1492. It was his daring, skill, perseverance, and even perhaps divine inspiration that he achieved the great things that he did.
As Leo XIII summed it up in his encyclical Quarto Abeunte saeculo at the time of the 400th anniversary: “the magnitude of the undertaking, as well as the importance and variety of the benefits that arose from it, call for some fitting and honourable commemoration of it among men. And, above all, it is fitting that we should confess and celebrate in an especial manner the will and designs of the Eternal Wisdom, under whose guidance the discoverer of the New World placed himself with a devotion so touching.”
(Editor’s note: This interview was originally posted on October 11, 2020.)
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